Trump argued in his campaign that black voters should give him a chance. "What do you have to lose?" was his refrain. But, so far, he has done little to bring them into the fold. Only a handful of notable African Americans such as Herschel Walker, Stacey Dash, Mike Tyson and Terrell Owens voiced their support for the businessman. And Ben Carson, selected to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is the only African American Trump has tapped for his cabinet.
“We Want an Ally”
During the first week of the year, as all eyes were on Trump Tower and the queue of luminaries streaming in, representatives from a group of civil rights organizations quietly met in Washington, D.C. with the Trump transition team.
Details of the so-called “listening session” weren’t released. But Charles Steele Jr., president and CEO of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, joined dozens other African Americans – members of the civil rights community and various local leaders – in a closed-door meeting with members of Trump’s transition team. Trump was not in the meeting.
The group came together after an exchange of emails and phone calls and at the behest of the transition team. Among them was Omarosa Manigualt, who was recently named as assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.
“Omarosa and the SCLC are friends,” said Steele, who sits at the helm of the organization once lead by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “I’ve known her for a few years. Our relationship is built around the civil rights community and the philosophy of peace and nonviolence.”
Steele would not say where the meeting took place or who specifically attended, but he characterized it as a “casual conversation.”
Those invited talked about the history of the civil rights movement and their concerns about issues like voter suppression and the plight of the poor. They talked about access to affordable health care and opening up lines of credit for poor people. Steele said he outlined the work the SCLC does training people in methods of nonviolent social change.
“We are Americans and we must work together in terms of embarking into the future and making American more inclusive,” Steele said. “We’re not going anywhere in terms of what we do for civil rights, but we want an ally.”
He said he hasn’t received any push-back for meeting with Trump’s team and it will not bother him if he does. The organization is nonpartisan, he said, and doesn’t endorse candidates.
“When you put a label on yourself politically, then that negates the opportunity for dialogue,” Steele said.
A Fine Line to Walk
As Georgia House Minority Leader, Stacey Abrams has to work with legislators to whom she is diametrically opposed on several issues. For that reason, Abrams said, she understands the need to work with people to find common ground.
“This isn’t a binary situation and there’s a desire to make it so,” Abrams said, referring to the argument over whether it’s productive for some African American luminaries to court Trump.
However, Abrams, who staunchly made the case for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic National Convention, said civil rights leaders and prominent African Americans have a very fine line to walk in engaging with Trump.
“Isolation is not a strategy,” Abrams said. “I don’t condemn those who seek insight and want to offer insight and to inform, but I do find it troubling when they emerge and become apologists for his behavior.”
Any overtures by the Trump team should not erase the fact that Trump was a leader of “birtherism” which was a “manifestation of his racism,” Abrams said. She warned of the allure of having private meetings with powerful people or their proxies.
“It is seductive to be flattered and courted by power,” Abrams said. “You can develop amnesia as to why you were there in the first place. If you’re going in to speak as a group you can’t forget that when you come out you’re responsible for what you said in that room and you’re responsible to the community you represent.”
When a parade of African American celebrities such as West, Don King, Jim Brown and Steve Harvey began streaming into Trump Tower, the debate erupted in the black community over whether those celebrities had gone to "kiss the ring" of a man whose campaign many believed was smothered with racist innuendo. Many recalled the videos of African American protesters being manhandled at Trump campaign rallies and what they saw as Trump's own hamhanded and tone deaf way of referring to a black supporter at one of his rallies as "my African American."
As Trump continued to conflate being African American with living in the inner cities that are “disasters,” “war zones” and “crime infested,” his rhetoric continued to alienate an influential part of the electorate that gave him only 8 percent of its vote, experts said. And there was grave concern over the advisors he’d brought onto his team, specifically Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, which has gained a reputation for being a platform for the white-nationalist and neo-Nazi movements.
So, watching the line of black headliners, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest son, exit the elevators of Trump Tower with Trump and pose for photos under press klieg lights set off a fierce debate within black communities; find common ground or refuse to engage?
Evangelist and author Alevda King, a niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., sees it this way: “African Americans belong at the forefront of discussions with our incoming president. This is an opportunity to be heard and to make a difference.”
“We need to stop kissing his ring”
Anderson, of Emory, said Trump has shown he’s incapable of viewing the black community in a nuanced way.
“He has a vision of black people and the black community formed by his time in New York City in the 1980s,” Anderson said. “So he sees crack and drugs and violence everywhere and that that’s all there is. He has a very narrow framework for who black people are, where we are and where we live.”
Anderson was dismayed when Ambassador Andrew Young said that both Lewis and Trump were at fault in their recent dust up. Lewis said he viewed Trump as an illegitimate president and the president-elect lashed out and called Lewis' district "crime infested." Anderson is teaching a class on the Civil Right Movement this semester, and said she finds Lewis's comments in line with a lifetime of work as a truth-teller regarding issues of moral justice. Young's comment seemed incongruent with that legacy, forged when both men worked together for racial equity. She was further troubled by Young's telephone conversation with Trump, reported by the Nashville Tennessean, in which Young told Trump, "We all ended up having hope for your administration."
“Being with Trump is like being with the Ark of the Covenant in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” Anderson said. “Even Indiana Jones turned away and said ‘Don’t look. You will melt.’ That’s what you see with the folks around him. Their integrity has disintegrated.”
One Trump position that especially concerned Anderson was his endorsement of ‘stop and frisk’ policies that have been ruled unconstitutional in New York. That initiative which allowed police in New York City to stop and frisk people who had not committed a crime but were suspected of doing so disproportionately affected black and brown men.
Nationally syndicated radio talk show host and activist Joe Madison, said Trump, “Got us fighting each other over him instead of demanding he take positions on public policy issues that positively impact our lives and community. Somebody should hashtag that. Those who do get FaceTime with Trump, should go in with a list of demands and come out with more than a photo op.”
A younger generation of civil rights leaders has also expressed dismay over the line of African American leaders to Trump Tower. Bree Newsome, a filmmaker and activist based in Charlotte, NC, is perhaps best known for climbing a flagpole outside the statehouse in Columbia, SC to remove the Confederate flag days before the state officially took it down in response to the Charleston massacre. A keynote speaker for Martin Luther King Week at Emory University, Newsome said Lewis's actions and his refusal to attend Trump's inauguration were appropriate.
“The FBI is investigating whether Russia had an influence on Trump’s election,” Newsome said. “I’m pretty sure history is going to side with John Lewis.”
Regarding Young’s comments about Lewis, Newsome took the long view of their careers after the movement.
“No disrespect to a lot of the civil rights leaders, but some of them became part of the establishment,” Newsome said. “We still have more work to do.”
The lesson she takes from those in the movement who worked under constant opposition is one she said still works today and that may be put to use in the Trump era.
“Direct action is most effective when it’s part of a targeted campaign,” Newsome said.